Popping Pimples on Paragraphs: 5 Things To Watch For

Image of an eye in close-up

Subject your prose to an up-close, rigorous inspection that goes sentence by sentence, word by word, to remove the "pimples" of excess words and bad constructions.

Some writers don’t rewrite; others do. I’m among the latter – by the time a story goes out, it’s passed beneath my eyes at least four or five times, often significantly more, and at least one of those passes has been a read-aloud. If that’s not your style, perhaps you’ll prefer this story prompt, this post on three things that end a story well, or the always popular Rambo Cat. If you’re with me in a preference for the polished, though, here’s some techniques for fine-tuning prose.

Towards the end of working on something, you often get weary. You’ve looked at that sentence so many times it’s become meaningless. Perhaps you reach the point of the final polish and think, “Well, it’s good enough already.” It’s not. Give it one last gloss, one last rub of the magic word-rag to bring its surface up to such a mirror-bright sheen that the editor can see their humanity reflected in it.

Talking to a friend, I compared this to going over each paragraph looking for zits, words or phrases that are little ugly clots marring the sentence. Groom the prose like a show pony, trimming dead-ends of lifeless conjunctions or combing sentences into parallel structure in order to bring them to a glossy shine.

1. Remove adverbs. An effective way to find instances of adverbs is to search on “ly” via your word processor. Nine times out of ten, if not more, the adverb’s a signal that a better verb is needed: “dashed” instead of “ran quickly” or “shouted” rather than “said loudly”. Find that verb and snip off that lumpy adverb.

2. Too long sentences (and paragraphs). Split up long sentences, whose meaning may waver and transform somewhere between the first word and the last. You want varied sentence construction, a mix of long and short, unless you’re trying for a deliberate effect by sticking to one or the other. This level of pass is a good place to get out the shears and cut through a few conjunctions.

3. Cliche comparisons and figures of speech. Watch for tired phrases and spend a moment to come up with something fresher. Use a random tool to spark ideas if you need to. Liven things up.

4. And then. Look at the beginnings of sentences to see if their first words are necessary. “And” and “Then” are common ways to begin a sentence that are usually unnecessary. Those words should only begin sentences if they’re needed for pacing. Otherwise, they’re extraneous.

5. Bad sentence constructions. It’s easy, with long sentences, to get confused and a touch ungrammatical. It’s okay to break the rules of grammar but make sure it’s deliberate and not accidental.

Now put away your sandpaper and blow gently on your paragraphs. Part of the process is letting the words rest for a little while. Now’s the time to do that. Go out into the sunlight or evening, leaving your writing behind locked safely in drawer or computer file – steeping, aging, mellowing until you’re ready to look at it again.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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